Friday, June 26, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

For the last meeting of City Lit Book's "Weird & Wonderful" book club, we talked about Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

It is definitely a weird and wonderful read. The elephant in the room, of course, is Ridley Scott's 1982 adaptation of the book as the film "Bladerunner", which is wildly different, and at this point usually what people encounter first--I know it was for me. Personally, going back and reading "Do Androids Dream" the first time was a very strange experience. It's not that "Bladerunner" is a bad adaption, it's that it goes off at such an angle--it's almost like a parallel work.

We had to talk for a bit about those differences, particularly in tone and style (plot deviations are large enough to barely warrant discussion). The book doesn't read as a noir/PI/Dashiel Hammett kind of tale, at all, the dominant feel of the film. And where "Bladerunner" has a visual aesthetic of dark, neon-lit, punky/polluted futurism, "Do Androids Dream" struck us as overwhelming run-down, dusty, brown and grey, and not particularly futuristic (excepting the flying cars).

One of the things I find interesting--and fairly unique--about putting "Do Androids Dream" up against "Blade Runner" is that they weirdly complement each other. Frequently, I find that adaptions "ruin" one or the other side: a book I love is dumbed-down and mutilated for the screen, or, far more rarely, a good scriptwriter/director/team can create something more convincing and solid than the original written work, so it's hard to return to the book after.

With these two though, and precisely because they're so different, that doesn't happen. You don't have to like one more than the other--they've placed themselves in separate categories. "Do Androids Dream" works better as a novel; "Blade Runner" works better as a film. They're incredibly different, so much so that the things they have in common (names, for instance), evoke less a shared common ancestor than a sort of shared mythological inspiration, like the differences between Greek & Roman gods.

That last paragraph is a rather non-concise thought thought, I realize. But! I was astonished to find, on researching this post, that Dick thought something along the same lines:
After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel. I was amazed that [screenwriter David] Peoples could get some of those scenes to work. It taught me things about writing that I didn't know.

The thing I had in mind all of the time, from the beginning of it, was The Man Who Fell to Earth. This was the paradigm. That's why I was so disappointed when I read the first Blade Runner screenplay, because it was the absolute antithesis of what was done in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In other words, it was a destruction of the novel. But now, it's magic time. You read the screenplay and then you go to the novel, and it's like they're two halves to one meta-artwork, one meta-artifact. It's just exciting.
-From a 1982 interview with John Boostra in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine.
 "Blade Runner" aside, we did really enjoy reading and talking over this book. Where to start?

We loved the sad-but-hilarious satire of conspicuous consumption and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses of the "Sidney's" catalog that Deckard is always referring to--which lists all the available animals and their prices. The language of how pets are discussed here is very much in the vein of how we, we consumers, have talked about cars, computers, phones, etc.

We liked how much ISN'T explained here--even though Dick will do an occasional info-dump, there's lots we just have to take as is. The animal fixation is a big one (and incidentally one aspect that didn't translate to film). There's this consumer side--it's expected to have an animal, the bigger the better, and the import thing is caring for it--that seems to stem from a quasi-religious one: Mercerism and this vague idea of empathy being important. And there also seems to be (I might be projecting here) a guilt and a nostalgia and a craving for a murdered natural world: this is a radioactive wasteland, there doesn't feel like there's any green, just dust, and so the obsession over animals seems to me to connect to that.
Athena. Please note that I am not turning
this entire post into a riff on Bubo, Dick,
& mechanical owls as a deep trope.

Owls, donkeys, and toads all figure prominently here. We couldn't figure out the toads and donkeys. But Rachel pointed out that owls often represent wisdom/rationality, are associated with Athena/Minerva.

Mercer, Mercerism, what is going on there? We talked about that for a long time--the mechanics of the empathy box, the apparently long and ongoing ideological battle between androids and Mercer, the bits and pieces of the Mercer journey-reincarnation-mythology that everyone seems to partake in (and which put me in mind of Dem Bones). Empathy and the lack of it is a clear concern throughout the book, with many of us finding J.R. Isidore the only really compelling character, despite his "chickenhead" status, because he's the only character motivated by empathy.

I've heard "Do Androids Dream" discussed as a kind of critique of Nazism, or at least the kind of groupthink that can allow atrocities to be perpetrated by seemingly "normal" folks--using an ideology of otherness to to de-humanize someone so they can be killed without having to face the fact that you're killing another person. That's exactly what Deckard and the system do here, so I thought it was really insightful that Allison brought up Arendt's concept of "the Banality of Evil" --pointing out the way that great evil was done, not so much by great malice, but by a kind of bumbling combination of evasion of responsibility, stupidity, and greed--which, again, is exactly the way Deckard proceeds in his murders of the replicants.

Mercer's involvement in Deckard's eventual actions, then, becomes even harder to parse--why is the avatar of empathy helping him to kill? When Mercer appears to Deckard towards the end, the passage reminds me eerily of the Bhagavad Gita--Krishna counselling a rightly-uncertain Arjuna to proceed with war over his reservations:
"Then what's this for?" Rick demanded. "What are you for?"

"To show you," Wilbur Mercer said, that you aren't alone. I am here with you and always will be. Go and do your task, even though you know it's wrong." (178).
We talked a lot about reality in the novel--even in his relatively non-psychadelic novels, Dick plays around a lot with what is and isn't real. It's not clear what Mercer's status is, for instance, and there's the long passage where Deckard is taken to a kind of mirror-world that the replicants have set up, and it seems very plausible that he and other (actually human) characters are replicants. There's a lot of uncanny doubling at work in the novel. We also talked for a little bit about Dick's explorations of/struggles with mental health, religion, and drugs, and how that affects his worlds.

And then there's kipple. We love the Theory of Kipple, the sort of invasion of trash, junk, and worthless stuff. But it also seems a bit parannoid, a bit unhinged, at least as described by Isidore (who also has some kind of mystic/reality-bending experiences, which may or may not be caused by/connected to the empathy box).

Crumb also did a work
on PKD, maybe that's
the connection?
A great book, a great discussion, and we wound up talking for a while about Dick's life, and other stories to read--I haven't read nearly enough of his novels, but solidly recommend his short stories.
Also, and seemingly unconnected to "Do Androids Dream", at least as far as I can tell from my notes, we talked about R. Crumb's illustrated "Book of Genesis", and Col. Chris Hadfield's appearance on the James Altucher podcast.

Thanks to my being extremely behind schedule, Weird & Wonderful has already met once more--Ted Chiang's superb collection "Stories of Your Life and Others" (2002)--and next up are Jo Walton's "My Real Children" (2014) and  Josh Malerman's "Bird Box" (2014). Also, don't forget to check out the other book clubs and events at City Lit, they have a lot going on!

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